Carowinds plans $50 million expansion

efrazier@charlotteobserver.comAugust 27, 2013 

The Ohio-based parent of Carowinds on Monday announced a $50 million expansion that one official said will put the site on par with some of the country’s largest amusement parks.

The multiyear project by Sandusky, Ohio-based Cedar Fair Entertainment will involve new rides and attractions, upgraded food locations, and general infrastructure improvements, officials said.

Company officials, who made the announcement during a Charlotte Chamber gathering, declined to give specifics. Richard Zimmerman, Cedar Fair’s chief operating officer, would say only: “I ride everything we build, and I can’t wait to ride what we’re going to build at Carowinds.”

Cedar Fair in 2011 announced it had bought 61 acres of vacant land next to Carowinds, whose 337-acre property straddles the North Carolina-South Carolina state line.

The new property is next to Carowinds’ current parking lots and near Interstate 77.

Zimmerman said work on the expansion will begin in 2014 and unfold over several years. It will create 15 new jobs and 270 additional seasonal jobs at the park.

Cedar Fair owns 11 amusement parks nationally. Its flagship Cedar Point attraction, on the shores of Lake Erie, features 16 roller coasters, three resort hotels and two marinas. Amusement Today, an industry trade publication, named Cedar Point the best amusement park in the world in 2011 and 2012.

Carowinds, with 13 roller coasters, currently ranks as one of Cedar Fair’s midsized parks, Zimmerman said.

With the planned addition, however, “this will place it right there up near the top” with the company’s biggest parks, he added. “If it grows the way we think it can grow, it’ll be right there.”

Intimidator leads to ‘record year’

Since buying Carowinds in 2006, Cedar Fair has invested more than $45 million in the park, which is now 40 years old.

In 2010 it opened the Intimidator, a $23 million, 10-acre roller coaster billed as the largest and most expensive ride in the park’s history. The company doesn’t disclose attendance for individual parks, but officials said in 2011 that they were coming off “a record year” in 2010 at least partly because of the Intimidator’s success.

The U.S. theme park industry has proved more recession-resilient than other leisure sectors, according to a 2012 study from the Mintel Group, a market research firm. Revenues are estimated to have risen 17 percent from 2007 to 2012 and are expected to grow an additional 7 percent annually through 2017, to nearly $18 billion, Mintel says.

Cedar Fair earlier this month reported net revenue of $403 million for the six months ending June 30, up $17.6 million compared with the prior-year period.

It said overall attendance was down by 52,000 visits, or less than 1 percent, compared with the same period a year earlier. However, net revenues rose because average guest spending per capita went up.

Shares in the company have risen 28 percent so far this year, closing Monday at $42.91.

Growth in Charlotte market

Zimmerman said the Charlotte region and Carowinds have shown strong momentum, and that helped convince company officials to invest even more in the park.

“I’ve been excited about the Charlotte market,” he said. “The growth that we’ve seen does not surprise me.”

Specific changes to the park are still being worked out, Zimmerman said. The company will study traffic, infrastructure and parking, among other things.

Parking might be shifted, he said, but the entrance will stay where it is and will get an upgrade.

“We’ve got some exciting things in terms of what you’re going to see when you arrive at the park,” Zimmerman said. “We’re really working on the arrival experience for our guests.”

Charlotte Chamber officials hailed the announcement as another sign of the region’s continued recovery from the recession. They went out to the park last weekend.

“I rode the Intimidator,” Chamber President Bob Morgan said. “I’ll do anything for a prospect.”

Frazier: 704-358-5145; @Ericfraz on Twitter.

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